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FCC Chairman Newton Minow 50 years later: a vaster wasteland

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In the April 2011 edition of Atlantic Monthly there is an article by former FCC Chairman Newton Minow. Minow was FCC Chairman in the 1960’s and he called television a vast wasteland. 

My objective at the convention was to tell broadcasters that the FCC would enforce the law’s requirement that they serve the public interest in return for their free and exclusive use of the publicly owned airwaves. Too much existing programming, I said, was little more than “a procession of game shows violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” Television, I said, was too often a “vast wasteland.”

Now 50 years later Newton Minow has written an article called “A Vaster Wasteland”.  The message still seems to be the same. 

From the Atlantic April 2011 article:

But those were not the two words [vast wasteland] I intended to be remembered. The two words I wanted to endure were public interest. To me that meant, as it still means, that we should constantly ask: What can communications do for our country? For the common good? For the American people?

What would he like to see in the next 50 years?

I believe we should commit to six goals in the next 50 years.

Our first must be to expand freedom, in order to strengthen editorial independence in news and information…

Our second commitment should be to use new communications technologies to improve and extend the benefits of education at all levels, preschool through postgraduate…

Our third commitment should be to use new technologies to improve and extend the reach of our health-care system…

Fourth, the nation’s communications infrastructure for public safety and local and national security is a dangerous disgrace…

Fifth, we need to give greater support to public radio and public television. Both have been starved for funds for decades, and yet in many communities they are essential sources of local news and information—particularly public radio, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute and is a valuable source of professionally reported news for millions of Americans…

Finally and critically, if over-the-air television is to survive as a licensed service operating in the public interest, we must make better use of it in our politics…

Newton Minow is now in his mid 80’s and here is a little more about him

Newton N. Minow is the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, PBS, the Rand Corporation, and the Carnegie Foundation, and is the Annenberg Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University.

Six steps to a Vaster Wasteland

Minow was an academic, is an academic, and will continue to be an academic.  What is on television now in 2011  is more (or worse) of the same of what was on television in the 1960’s when he was FCC Chairman and called it a Vast Wasteland – was little more than “a procession of game shows violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.

Market demands determine programming

The truth about television is that it is subject to market forces.  What is on television (the programming) is exactly what the American people want to see.  Those who create shows for television and place them into time slots do a very careful calculation.  They ensure that the programming is a fit for what people want to see in a particular time slot and this is driven by advertising dollars.  Television is very efficient in adjusting the programming to maximize the audience so that advertising rates can be maximized to generate the most revenue.  If a certain program does not gain the viewer share expected then that show is pulled and different programming is put into place.  So, in a sense, the efficiency of capitalism adjusts the programming to exactly what the American people want to watch.

Minow wants to fill the airwaves with 1) news and information 2) education 3) information to help out the health care system 4) public safety information 5) more local news “professionally produced”  6) and more politics.

Now, I would ask you.  If Minow was able to do this by fiat would anyone ever watch television?  There would be a “vast wasteland” not because of the quality of the content but because the great mass of Americans wouldn’t watch television given the alternatives.  What people actually use television for is entertainment.  There are tons of sources for news, education, political discussion, and all the rest that Minow wants available elsewhere.  Why can’t television be entertainment?  That is exactly what the American people want it to be as evidenced by the fact that this is what they prefer to watch as measured by an (entertainment) programs market share.

Fix the culture and television will take care of itself

Minow’s fight is not with television broadcasters and television programming – it’s with the tastes of the American people.  Change the tastes of the American people and the wonders of capitalism will change the programming of television to fit those tastes and maximize revenue. To change the programming on television is to treat the symptom rather than the cause.

Minow’s committment to the 6 goals should be to raise the culture of the American people so they want (desire) to watch what Minow has in mind.  Is the plan to create a nation of academics understood in the stereotype of a university professor?

A vaster plan for shipwreck

The irony is that committment to Minow’s six goals would indeed create a vast wasteland of television simply because no one wants to watch that stuff – except perhaps, academics.

As a piece of television trivia I will leave you with this as told by Minow

I knew broadcasters would not be happy. My favorite response was from the Hollywood producer Sherwood Schwartz, who named the sinking ship in Gilligan’s Island after me.

Yes, I believe that the committment to the six goals listed above would sink television.  Sherwood and others knew that television was a main source of entertainment for the American people – and it continues to be.  Entertainment is in the public interest as Newton Minow desires.  People work hard every day.  They work in factories, drive busses, and work in the sewer.  The average American, the likes of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, deserve to come home, sit down, and watch television to get a little entertainment for their day’s labor.


Read the article in the Atlantic here

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A few quotes on television

Television is the first truly democratic culture – the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want.     – Clive Barnes

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home. – David Frost

Television is not the truth. Television is a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats, storytellers dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. – Paddy Chayefsky

Written by frrl

March 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] FCC Chairman Newton Minow 50 years later: a vaster wasteland […]

  2. […] Chairman Newton Minow delivers a May 9 speech in which he denounces U.S. TV as a “vast wasteland,” calling for heightened federal regulation of the medium. The same day, Vice President […]

  3. Minow’s 1961 speech was the most important examination of TV generated in the 1960s, and his 2011 piece is the most important examination of the last 10 years.


    April 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

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